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April 10, 2020

Losers

Morry-Taylor-1996-president-cspan.jpegHere in 2020, the book that has most helped me understand the political circumstances in which the US finds itself is Michael Lewis's 1997 book, Losers: The Road to Everyplace But the White House, originally released in the US as Trail Fever, because apparently the publisher thought that Americans wouldn't buy a book about losers. From Lewis's comments (and from the fact that this book does not appear on his website), it appears Americans didn't respond to the euphemistic replacement either.

We should have, because it explains so much about what happened in 2016 and since. In the book, Lewis follows the losing candidates in the US 1996 presidential election. That year, Bill Clinton was elected to his second term, defeating veteran Republican candidate Bob Dole. The Democratic primaries were pro-forma. The real action for Lewis, who found following the most successful candidates a throw-away-your-press-credentials chore of stenographically rendering vague aphorisms from carefully controlled corrals, was anywhere Morry Taylor happened to be.

Who? you ask, justifiably. To open his description of Taylor, Lewis starts with Taylor's own words: "I'm what you call an empty refrigerator - you open it up and there's nuthin' inside." Taylor was the founder and CEO of Titan Wheel International, a billion-dollar company he built by buying up bankrupted farm wheel companies and building them back up, and he conceived the idea of running for president when an employee suggested it after listening to a typical Taylor rant about idiotic Washington politicians. After thought, "Morry decided that the country finally was ready to elect a president who was a serious businessman. The only question was: Which businessman?" As we now know, the answer came 20 years later, and turned out to be, "The guy who plays one on TV."

By 1996, that businessman wasn't going to be Ross Perot, who had run in 1992 as an independent and tried again in 1996 with his own Reform Party.. Taylor proposed to run as a Republican, the most obscure of the dozen who ran that year. Alongside him, besides Dole, were: the paleoconservative broadcaster Pat Buchanan, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander (since 2003 a senator from Tennessee), former diplomat Alan Keyes, Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX), California Governor Pete Wilson, magazine publisher Steve Forbes, and Congressman Bob Dornan (R-CA). Wilson and Specter withdrew before the primaries, and all but Buchanan and Dole withdrew before the nominating convention. There, Buchanan finally gave up.

Lewis's embrace of Morry Taylor as a journalistic subject is largely due to his perception that the closer a candidate is to winning the less authentic he can afford to be. (See also the superb 1972 movie The Candidate, which captures this perfectly.) Taylor has no expectations, is using his own money, and can say what he likes. The only big-name politician Lewis encounters who feels the same freedom is John McCain, who emerges as a quiet hero. Getting money out of politics, then as now a constant drumbeat, doesn't seem a solution to Lewis: "Even if you take the money out of politics you still have to confront the reason money is so important in the first place: the terror of honest political speech."

The American politics Lewis describes is of a top layer who feign engagement with big issues but actually shy away from them: "There is a great tradition of big political questions...being addressed only by people regarded as crackpots".

Today's Green New Deal was gathered in the margins in 2006 before its 2018 adoption by high-vis Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes (D-NY). Some called her "naive", but it was embraced in this year's Democratic primaries by Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT). Just a month ago, Sanders, who finally suspended his presidential campaign this week, was being called a communist for pushing Medicare for All - today an essential stopgap to manage the pandemic. Two months ago, Andrew Yang, explaining universal basic income to Joe Rogan, was an impossible dreamer. Today, it's on the table, even if only temporarily. The crisis has moved the Overton window; these things are now *thinkable*, rather than too dangerous to elect.

But Lewis's most startling conclusion is this one, about Buchanan, who sought to reinvent the Republican party in his image: "Maybe the most striking thing about his campaign is that it triumphed, however briefly, in prosperous times. Buchanan was selling anger when there wasn't a great deal to be angry about. You can imagine all sorts of events that could change that: a stock market collapse; a recession; a war in which Americans die wearing U.N. blue; a revolution in Mexico. A medium-sized downturn, and the people at the Buchanan rallies will be not unemployed textile workers but lawyers and doctors. Anger would become respectable. And any man with the capacity to speak to it could go far."

There it is, spelled out, in 1996: anger, waiting to be tapped. And then came the dot-com bust, 9/11, and the 2008 financial crisis.

Three and a half years on from the triumph of anger, the Democratic primaries began with new candidates and new ideas, and are ending with an old candidate wielding a reset button and the built-up outrage of millions of Democrats. Are we ready for this?

Illustrations: Morry Taylor on C-Span in 1996.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.